Over the next couple weeks, Jesse and his family worked steadily on the cabin. Mae bustled about inside the cabin like a worker bee, making all the necessary living arrangements. Her days were filled with clearing cobwebs from dark corners and the underside of furniture, polishing cabinets until there was a lustrous shine, and stitching together new cushions for the furniture in the family room. Meanwhile Tuck, Miles, and Jesse worked on the cabin itself. New boards replaced rotten ones, and then received a varnish to match the iridescent bark of the wood. Together they built a new henhouse for the hens Mae and Tuck had brought along in their trailer. The hard labor gave Jesse back the energy that finding Winnie's headstone had sapped from him. He worked until rivulets of sweat ran down his back, continuing on with the tasks even when rain poured down and his father and his brother found refuge indoors. The nails he hammered into place were very much like the memories of Winnie roaming around his head, which he vainly attempted to beat into submission. They would not consume his every waking hour, he determined. But he could hardly keep from envisioning the faceless figure of Winnie's husband with every few swings of the hammer.
Once finished with the cabin, and finding it returned to all its former glory, Jesse took to the wood. His family settled into their home and picked up their lives in Foster wood as if no time had passed, but he was unable to do so. In the wood, he used to find solace, and nothing used to please him like the wood. The views from the rocky rises – from his Eiffel Tower – enthralled him, and the newborn animals and rushing creeks were a delight to his ever-young eyes. But memories of Winnie now haunted him, memories that would never be repeated. In the meadow, he could see her kneeling in the tall grass, longing to hold a fawn which had boldly wobbled toward them on its feeble legs. He remembered swimming at the waterfall, where Winnie had clung to him in the water, nestling her head next to his, afraid of drowning. His arms remembered the feel of her undergarment, and he blushed as he recalled her bare skin underneath. He tried to rid these memories from his mind, but they were permanently embedded, and they robbed him of his joy. Even so, he wasn't certain he wished to be rid of them.
What Jesse needed was distraction, something to fill his empty hours if not his lonely heart, and he found it.
Miles had gone into town, off to win more money from the men at the card tables. His years of experience made him a genius at the game, a dreaded opponent, and the environment at the bar, appealing to his dark mood swings, felt like home. The bar he played at was the same one he had always played at in Treegap, where only the music and bar hands had changed since his last visit. Like the owners of the bar, Mae and Tuck had changed their habits little over the years. They had remained at the cabin on this night, slowly progressing on the projects they would later sell at a nearby farmers' market. They lived modestly, and they relied on their vegetable garden and livestock for food, besides the money Jesse and Miles shared with them. They knew little about the society around them, or how the technological age was rising to its peak. Their world was so isolated, not even the sons knew about the group of high school friends who made regular ventures into the wood.
Jesse had set out from the cabin, not caring about where he was headed, and wandered over rock and creeks until he reached a clearing with a large, healthy tree in the middle, a T carved in its trunk – Winnie's headstone at its base. The spot where time had stopped for the Tuck family, and where Jesse had learned his love for a girl would forever go on, unreturned. Here he had stopped to rest. Settled on the ground, with his back against the tree, he had been breaking off small, white flowers, which were scattered throughout the field, at their stems and twirling them between his fingers. The part in him which would forever remain 17 was tempted to pluck the petals and chant "She loved me, she loved me not." But before Jesse succumbed to this sad temptation, the group of giggling friends passed nearby. The gaiety they radiated instantly drew Jesse in, and being curious to what such a group was doing in the wood, he noiselessly rose to his feet and followed.
The bouncing beams of their flashlights, dim in the twilight hour, led the way, and after several minutes of traveling through the canopied wood, being careful to avoid the twigs on the ground, Jesse found himself on the edge of another clearing. He squatted beside some underbrush, remaining hidden, as the chattering group gathered sticks for a fire. For the first time in weeks, his thoughts momentarily lifted from Winnie as he watched them attempt to build a fire. He couldn't help but laugh as they randomly placed sticks on top of each other and tried to light them with lighters, which barely licked the sticks.
"You forgot the leaves, genius," said a boy in a red athletics jacket, and he scooped up some leaves from a nearby bush and dumped them over the pile of sticks.
"Thanks, Derek," and the firelighter bent to set the leaves ablaze. But this was too much for Jesse. Something inside him yearned to show them how real woodsmen made a fire; something yearned to show off. And so he wrestled free of the underbrush and stepped into the clearing.
The boys in the group were immediately on their feet, alert to his presence. "Who are you?" one of them demanded. They advanced on Jesse. The girls stayed back, watching the scene from where they sat. Jesse raised his hands and retreated to the edge of the clearing.
"I mean no harm," he said. The figures of the boys were large and square, and he wondered if he could inflict much harm if he wanted to. "I thought I'd show you how to build a fire the old-fashioned way, if you're interested?" He looked at each one in turn, brow raised. The boys glanced at each other uncertainly, but the girls looked more than interested in welcoming the handsome stranger.
"Give the Boy Scout a chance," was the response from a girl with long, dark locks. "It should be entertaining if nothing else."
So Jesse ended up in the middle of the clearing, arranging the sticks and leaves the way his pa had taught him many years ago. Like Miles with playing cards, he was adept at building fires, and soon he had an admirable blaze crackling in their midst. The others had scattered to various spots in the clearing after learning his name and telling him their own, and a couple of them yelled out their compliments on the fire, but Jesse had his attention focused elsewhere. Cara, the girl with long, dark locks, was sneaking glances at him whenever Wyatt, who appeared to be her boyfriend, based on the way he protectively held his arm around her, was looking the other way. But before Jesse could go and introduce himself properly, someone jarred his shoulder, wanting his attention.
"I haven't seen you at school. What's the deal?" It was Derek, the athlete with the red jacket.
"I don't go to the school," Jesse said. He liked to keep answers short when it came to personal matters. The less said, the less risked.
"Are you homeschooled? You look around our age," said Melanie, a girl with an astonishing amount of sparkling green eye shadow.
"I was. I graduated early."
"That explains why we haven't seen him before, Derek," said Melanie. She clung to his arm and batted her eyes, obviously desiring the same type of attention that Wyatt was paying Cara. "He's probably never laid eyes on what we're carrying." The two sat on the ground across from Jesse, with Derek placing his pack between them.
"What are you carrying?" Jesse asked. He eyed the pack curiously.
Derek placed a hand on the pack and dragged it closer. Mischievousness was clear in his smile as he looked at Jesse and said, "First, we need to know if you're a true Boy Scout, or if, like us, you have a healthy disrespect for the law and its enforcers."
Winnie was forefront in Jesse's mind like a flash. She was in her nightgown with boots on her feet, a comical combination. The memory of her running to the jailhouse and pounding on the front doors, doing her part in the escape of Mae and Tuck, played out in his mind. "No, I can't say the law and I always act along the same lines."
"Glad to hear it," said Derek, and Melanie giggled. The pack was unzipped. Jesse inwardly grimaced as Derek extracted a bag of finely chopped weeds – marijuana – and a bag of rolling papers. He missed Winnie. She had been able to enjoy every speck of life, every moment, without distorting the senses.
Melanie and Derek greedily rolled their joints and lit up. When they offered some to Jesse, he put up a hand. "No, thanks. I prefer to keep my wits about me."
"So he is a Boy Scout," said Cara. She had strolled over to roll her own joint, with Wyatt tagging along behind.
"If we're lucky, he'll spread word to the other scouts," he said.
Cara laughed and winked at Jesse. "Wyatt recently sold some weed to a Boy Scout. He's planning on selling to half the society by next year."
"John's an Eagle Scout now. He'd resent you using his former title," said Derek.
Rolling her eyes, Cara turned her full attention on Jesse. "So…what's your name again?"
"Jesse," he said.
"So, Jesse, care to show me how you made that fire again?" she asked, her joint in hand. Wyatt was bent over the bags, oblivious of the mild flirtation going on between Cara and Jesse, and about to be oblivious of much more. Imagining the lonely hours ahead of him if he left the group now, Jesse decided to take the opportunity to get to know them. He accepted the invitation.
Delighted to be in the company of the handsome newcomer, Cara insisted that she would learn best by starting from scratch at the edge of the clearing. As she and Jesse gathered more sticks to do just that, she filled the silence by prattling on and on about how she and her friends liked to camp in the wood on Friday nights, how they had done so for the past two years, and how her boyfriend used the wood to meet with students and sell his stash. Barely listening to what Cara was saying, Jesse began his second fire for that evening, and he hoped Cara was able to watch and learn as she talked. Once the sticks were arranged in proper formation, he scraped some leaves together from nearby underbrush and, taking two sticks, began rubbing them together as fast as possible. Cara hung over his shoulder, watching his progress. Her stance reminded him of Winnie, who had also stood looking over his shoulder as he turned sparks into flames. The memory of him twirling Winnie around that fire enveloped his mind as smoke began to curl up from the sticks he rubbed.
"How long have you been building fires like this?" Cara asked, breaking into his reverie.
"Since I was young," said Jesse.
Cara rolled her eyes. "Because you're so old now." She threw the butt of her joint to the ground and crushed it with her heel. "Let me try."
Handing the smoking sticks over, Jesse instructed her to move fast and to keep the sparks close to the leaves. Teeth gritted, Cara rubbed hard, cutting across her skin a few times, and soon had a small flame catching and spreading to the other sticks. Campfire smoke permeated the air, a pleasant smell compared to the stench from the marijuana. Cara let out a sigh of satisfaction, feeling proud of her accomplishment, and sat back on her heels.
"Piece of cake," she said.
Jesse laughed. "Maybe your lighter days are over." He bent over and lightly blew on the flame, encouraging it to grow.
"There will never be a day without need for a lighter," she said. "How else will we light up our weed?" Her smile was mocking, yet beautiful at the same time. Jesse looked away. To distract himself, he made a game out of passing his hand through a low flame.
"There are other ways to enjoy your Friday nights," he said.
Cara snorted. "Like how?"
"There are lots of ways," said Jesse, his voice rising in excitement. "Take a swim in the river, hike on one of the paths through this wood, or dance at a local barn festival. Use your imagination. Even playing a simple board game can be a fun evening."
Cara rolled her eyes again, this time with a smile. "You sound like my parents. They're always telling me to try out new activities, instead of hanging out in the wood, smoking pot."
"You mean your parents know about the drugs, and they're okay with it?"
"They're not too happy about it, but they don't try to stop me either. They're old. They lived in the 60s and 70s, the peace, love, and dope era. I guess they feel like they can't tell me to change my behavior because of how they used to live."
Jesse had also lived through the 60s and 70s, without becoming lost in the world of sex and drugs, but that bit of information was best left unspoken. "I just think you can do better," he muttered under his breath.
They sat in silence. Completely at ease, Cara stretched out on the ground, with her hands behind her head, and stared at the night sky. Jesse could only guess she was smiling because of the effects of the drug. From the clearing, he could hear the others rambling on about the images they saw flitting through the fire. An owl hooted from somewhere up above, and the temperature was dropping fast. Pain tore at Jesse's heart, and he wondered if he would ever find another friend like Winnie. Compassionate and brave, she had meant the world to him. She still did. From the corner of his eye, Jesse saw Cara brush some hair from her face, and he wondered what she was like off the hallucinogen.
"You're lucky I like you," she said suddenly. "Otherwise I could have you arrested for trespassing on private property."
Abashed, Jesse realized it would seem to the others like he had materialized out of thin air, and he was lucky that no one seemed to care. But all he could think of for a reply was "If I'm trespassing, then so are you. Unless your name is Foster?"
"Jackson," said Cara. "The family that owns this wood is named Jackson. And I'm friends with the oldest daughter, so I'm not trespassing."
This caught Jesse's interest. Of course the family owning the wood was named Jackson. It was Winnie's married name, her husband's name. Jesse suddenly felt sick. He looked beyond Cara to the clearing, where the others sat around the fire, finishing the contents of the bags. Melanie was pressed up against Derek, stroking his arm and laughing at his every remark. "Is that her?" asked Jesse.
Cara looked around as well. "Melanie? No, not her. Angie Jackson is like you – she stays away from the party scene. Her parents think we come out here to roast marshmallows and play games. We do when they come out," she said with a look of disgust.
Relief washed over Jesse. He had no desire to meet Winnie's descendants, or to even see them, for he would only be comparing them to the face that haunted his dreams. So much of Winnie remained in the small town of Treegap. He remembered his first day back in town, seeing a car parked in front of Winnie's old house. The current Jackson family probably lived there, in the house where Winnie had grown up. Grown up and grown old, Jesse thought bitterly. If only he had come back sooner. To have seen her one last time would have lessened the pain of the loss. As his thoughts turned down this dark path, he stared into the fire without seeing, without feeling it warm his hands and feet, and Cara openly studied him. She saw the sorrow and the grief, the anger and the disappointment, and she marveled at it being in one who seemed no older than she. But before she could ask any questions, to find the root of his pain, he stood up.
"I should go," he said.
"But the night's still young," she said, sitting up and frowning at him.
"Best not to stay out all night." He hesitated before adding, "My family might begin to worry."
Cara huffed out a breath of air, resigned to his decision. "Some Boy Scout rule no doubt." Teasing him was a joy, and she hoped future opportunities would arise for her to do so. "Will you be around the area?"
"Maybe," he said. He appeared distracted, and he started walking into the wood, away from the light.
"Pop up on us closer to civilization sometime. We could always learn a few more tricks." This met with silence, and Jesse was almost out of sight when Cara yelled out, "Do you need someone to point the way? You're heading the wrong way out."
And all she heard was a ghostly voice – "Don't worry about me" – and the wood was silent and still but for she and her friends.